In the recording and concertizing world of mainstream classical piano, Andras Schiff has become perhaps the leading light in the generation behind elder elders and younger elders—Brendel plus Kovacevich and Goode, then Perahia and Lupu—while senior to the comparative youngsters Lewis and Fellner.In Schiff’s lengthy Celebrity Series recital last Friday night at Jordan Hall, the master showed up late.
Note: Pianists Sergey Schepkin and Katherine Chi are reviewed below.
Schiff began his Himalayan endurance trek with Bach’s Goldberg Variations in what was, alas, by some measure the worst professional piano performance this reviewer has ever heard. Measure for measure, note group for note group, Schiff’s rhythm was flabby, without beat, unrelievedly slack, distorted where not shapeless. The work’s brisk beginning was not completely clean, not completely strong; by variation 3 and 4 every pianist has got the pulse, but not here. It wasn’t the common matter of introducing hand and fingers to metronome; that’s just how this man plays Bach: unfixable, as his numerous CDs evince. Even when Bach hands out the clicktrack (which he does much of the time, e.g. variation 12), Schiff might begin pointed and loud but then would weaken, unable to sustain the beat, lapsing back into helpless wandering with a kind of innately faulty rubato. You might say the rubato was random, but that’s not really right; it’s more automatic, arrhythmic, with the fact that the hands aren’t together not the result of the usual fancy keyboard robbing and staggering of time for effect, but a simple failure to feel regularity.
Variation 14 finally began to shape up, it seemed, and variation 15 lacked poetry and perfume to a nice degree that I quite liked … but in each, forced, halting rhythms soon dominated again, meaning no line, no downbeat, no upbeat. The lefthand generally played too loudly, but ppp was never to be heard in any case. An elderly friend in the audience who likes to quietly conduct rhythmically gave up on each variation after only a few seconds into it. Of 17 and 18 I scribbled that it’s actually hard to play like this. I kept expecting it all to improve, naturally, with Schiff coming to feel it, growing involved, excited, and making the piece involving, exciting. But no. My ticket date, a recovering musician and critic, fled this nearly soldout recital the instant these anodyne Goldbergs ended.
Since Schiff is the opposite of a rhythmically strong Bach pianist, his large recording career with that composer is dumbfounding. You would not think he has any use for Bach, even in the slow, brooding minor variations, also that Bach for him somehow lacks pulse fundamentally. A telling sign: Schiff’s feet remained stock-still throughout, and it wasn’t just because he does not pedal Bach. Now, it’s true that Denk’s Goldberg feet were like Jerry Lee Lewis, autonomously flailing throughout, and in solid time. But Schiff’s inept trilling, frequent rushing including chronic speedups/slowdowns, and failure to truly get Bach’s weird syncopations made it all feel, well, like a recital by a talented but ultimately not that good young student. It’s not that Schiff hasn’t thought about the work, of course: his extensive and imaginative (too imaginative for my taste) program notes consider important architectural or structural points, where he observed long pauses.
Two of Schiff’s teachers were George Malcolm, whose chief harpsichord virtue was that he got Bach’s motor (meaning understood it, honored it), and Sandor Vegh, whose Mozart swing is unsurpassed in its Ellington quality.
Schiff’s official recordings of the Goldbergs aren’t this bad. Let us conclude by presuming that the artist’s hands were having an unusually weak night.
After the break, the marathoner transformed into some other musician, and it was a new Schiff who returned to the Jordan Hall stage, to take on Beethoven’s multifarious Diabelli Variations, a journey from peak after peak. I had had to prepare myself, also knowing what similar Beethoven lay ahead on Sunday, and to spend a weekend immersed in the mysterious, magisterially controlled imagination of this composer over the last five years of his piano-composing life remains very close to an overwhelming experience.
Schiff likes this piece. He began the waltz on the fast side. The first couple of variations felt not queer enough, not accented enough. But over time and by turns, Schiff engaged with the music in meaningful, serious, witty fashion. There were phrasing, inflection, dash, inwardness; on occasion sun broke through with a smile. (Schiff still doesn’t show the poise and the crystalline, unlabored crispness of a Meng-Chieh Liu or Minsoo Sohn; recently hearing Liu twice has surely spoiled me.) Schiff again lacked the last measure of strength in Beethoven’s 3 vs 2 or 3 vs 4 writing and his rhythmic perversities elsewhere; some iambs could have been more agogic. But this confident performance dissipated the Bach weakness; rhythmic flab is impossible in Beethoven such as this.
In variation 13, with its possibly thundering dactyls, Beethoven’s pauses presaged Victor Borge, and a playful Schiff had the audience laughing both times. I don’t think I have ever seen delighted gasping quite like that before. The pianist proceeded to roll along, feeling it, Beethoven’s wit snarling or sly. Variation 16 rocked; Schiff’s left hand (which was loud throughout) boogying steadily up the octaves and then cornering perfectly and without pause to boogie back down. It was not quite at the Kovacevich and Lewis level, but close, and better than many. (A YouTube clip here seems to me telling about Schiff’s unsettled beliefs about and feeling for rhythm: in it he disavows, explicitly by name, any boogie-woogie notions for the rhythmically similar Opus 111 variation. Good thing he did not take his own counsel for Opus 120.) By the end Schiff was fully in all the moments, feet moving, driving the splendid fugal momentum unto the crisp Mozartean last variation with its endlessly reflective and reintegrating music box. The performance had become a Beethoven conveyance anyone would want to return to for study.
“Don’t call him back,” murmured someone in the aisle eagerly getting set to leave, “he might play the Handel Variations.” It had been a long evening. But then Schiff launched into the last movement of Opus 111. Someone coughed, loudly because the Arietta begins so quietly, and Schiff stopped cold, and finger-wagged the offender. Now, the propensity to cough and clear throats whenever there is quiet is another of life’s mysteries, and every serious music-lover must go to heroic lengths to make no noise (I knew a reviewer who would practically lean under the seat with his face buried in his coat if a cough came on), and everyone must pack strong coughdrops (some venues even have them available in mint dishes). But stopping to chide, seriously? The remaining audience again laughed, this time uncomfortably.
Schiff started over, and proceeded to spin out a transcendent performance, wondrously clanging the open chords at the end after the tension had relaxed and the heavens had opened and all was exhaled.
(A fine nonmusical moment at this concert came from seeing Walter Pierce still looking hale; as Celebrity Series director in the 1960s and ’70s, he was an extremely important contributor to the growth and sophistication of Boston’s classical music life.)
Sunday Afternoon at Emmanuel Music
The Sunday afternoon late-Beethoven piano recital at Emmanuel Church for Emmanuel Music featured Sergey Schepkin playing the last Bagatelles and opus 110 and Katherine Chi the Diabelli Variations. More to ponder. Bagatelles are akin to ‘trick pieces’, artistic director Ryan Turner informed us in brief remarks beforehand. The comprehensive program notes began with his Opus 126 contribution; Russell Sherman commented at his most helpfully poetic on opus 110, and an excerpt from the amazing Diabelli essays of William Kinderman completed the content. Schepkin, of slightly severe mien, found sturdy ways to punch forth the weird Bagatelles, although here too some smiling might have been favorable, as not a few passages conjured Shostakovich or Prokofiev.
In all of this keyboard work from 1819 through 1824 we are led to stand before Beethoven’s deep fondness for fugue, chorale, near-medieval styles including seemingly primitive canon, while also thinking ahead, to the divine, to future worlds of an almost ethereal metaphysic. Beethoven looks back to Bach, different Bachs in fact, and forward to Brahms (Diabelli variation 20 to some extent); he pays humorous, also serious tributes to Mozart, dead almost three decades when Diabelli’s postwar fundraising project was launched. Beethoven honors his favorite composer Handel more than once. And sometimes he peers ahead to a Zen future, of Haydnlike simplicity. Turner noted that the Bach fugue study was partly in preparation for the Missa Solemnis.
Regardless, by the end of many works—this is truer in the sonatas than the variations—there almost always has been detailed struggle during the transition from feeling really bad to relief, of … what? Some sort of better is all we can tell. Sometimes the music embodies only the approach of relief, other times the relief itself. This struggle gets sonically dramatized in the most probing ways, thereby physically persuading us of the very process, as Charles Rosen put it. With Beethoven many would not quite call it healing, and in the Diabelli it is triumph, but with what sounds like to me a satisfying and amusing slight letdown.
Schepkin’s Opus 110 began somewhat stiff and square. I thought it might be partly the Emmanuel Steinway, but Debussy recordings by this pianist exhibit the same slightly tight and unlilting characteristic. (There’s a brutal Mussorgsky recording as well.) Phrase openings sounded pushed, marchlike; Schepkin has rhythmic strength but sometimes of a stereotypically Germanic sort. This inelegance suits other musics, true. One peculiar penchant is that even in recordings Schepkin regularly rushes cadences in order to prepare for next difficult passage; it’s puzzling no one seems to have mentioned this to him. A reverse emergency rubato, if you will.
He momentarily flubbed his way in the Scherzo.
But then, but then: the force came to him, the force was with him, he relaxed, and the last movement’s fugues were just tremendous. Such screw-tightening, such triumphs.
Katherine Chi similarly did not start out as the last word in elegance or relaxed intensity. (She has a Hammerklavier recording that’s a bit tight and squared-off.) The Diabelli opening waltz and variations felt tense, unplayful; some trills made messes. But then she too, after rocking through variation 16, began to ease, and the entire second half, particularly the last third, showed off increasing imagination and sensitivity to a high degree. Chi came into her own, listening into her playing. This may sound like faint praise, but it is not, believe me, as here is where Beethoven really gets going in his time travels, and Chi fully lit his varied facets: manic, formal, pedantic, show tune, haunting, chromatic. The last slow variations sang gravely, Goldberg-like, and the Fugue gripped its dissonances and transitioned in riveting fashion to that closing music-box Menuetto, its final chord for once not banged out, indeed treated with an effective, defocusing half-pedaling release. I’ve never heard it done that way.
Now I want to hear all three of these pianists in more late Beethoven.